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It Had to Be Her

Alma Mahler, circa 1908
Austrian National Library/Alamy
Alma Mahler, circa 1908

Like the stories of most notorious women, Alma Mahler’s is one of sex and power. She had a liking and a talent for both. Trailing a legacy of innuendo, anecdotes, and off-color jokes, she steers any biographer, however serious, to the enjoyable, lascivious path of the gossipy celebrity biography—but with better gossip and much better celebrities. She married or had affairs with so many important figures of early modernism that she has become, herself, a figure in the history of twentieth-century music (through her relationship with Gustav Mahler), art (Oskar Kokoschka), architecture (Walter Gropius), and literature (Franz Werfel). Born in Vienna in 1879, during the last hurrah of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she died in New York City in the 1960s. Because she was an ambitious young woman who longed to be a great composer but became instead a great muse to great men, there is a temptation to view her as yet another female victim of cultural oppression. Because she was anti-Semitic, narcissistic, boastful, and untruthful, there is a temptation to dismiss her altogether.

Even in her lifetime, she was both adored and reviled. Was she an artist stunted by society’s restrictions on women who channeled her genius to become the inspiration for the men she consorted with? Or was she a grandiose groupie, expropriating the fame of her husbands and lovers? In a new biography, Passionate Spirit, Cate Haste leans toward the former view. “I like Alma Mahler,” she writes. “I particularly like the modern young woman who emerges from the pages of her early diaries.”

The Alma Schindler of her early diaries, which she began in 1898, is, indeed, appealing. They reveal an ebullient teenager full of serious opinions and enthusiasms, a flirtatious young woman giddy with the attentions of the cultural elite in culturally elite fin-de-siècle Vienna. Alma writes about crushes and kisses and assignations on the Ringstrasse, about vigorously practicing the piano and earnestly studying composition, about attending the opera, about buying dresses and fighting with her mama. She is a girl—a splendid girl in a splendid city at a splendid time. She is vain and unsure of herself, self-aggrandizing as only a serious, determined, sensitive young person can be.

The early diaries, published in English in 1998, end in 1902, just before she married Gustav Mahler. Alma lived for another sixty-two years, years of vainglorious strutting, scheming, and disloyalty, years chronicled by her own memoirs and by her later diaries (which have not been translated into English). Mahler scholars have a name for the challenge that arises from her unreliable tendencies: the Alma Problem. “She is routinely accused of massaging the facts to serve her own legacy,” Haste writes, “of suppressing or editing her husband Gustav Mahler’s published letters to remove critical references to her, for instance—acts seen, particularly by Mahler scholars (for whom she was for some time their principal source), as tampering with the archive.”

There are in addition the many unsympathetic memoirs and letters written by those around her. Some contemporaries, like Elias Canetti, simply loathed her. Others, like Bruno Walter, were baffled by her vindictive nature. Alma Mahler certainly had her fans. Thomas Mann found her amusing even after she orchestrated an ugly feud between him and Arnold Schoenberg. Nevertheless, when Haste proposes a reassessment of Alma’s “legacy, to view her free from the screen of skepticism and the harshly judgmental tone of previous commentators on her life,” she has her work cut out for her.

Haste does not tackle each instance of mythmaking; she says, rather, that the dishonesties in Alma’s version of her life with Mahler have “been exaggerated into the prevalent view that anything written by Alma is bound to be inaccurate or self-serving, which in my view considerably undervalues her witness to her own life and the history she lived through.”

It is ironic, then, that Haste, like Alma, uses the men in this extraordinary life as milestones. But how could she not? After all, what men! The first of Alma’s men was her father, the eminent landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler, whom Haste calls Alma’s artistic “guide, mentor, and polestar.” When Alma was born, Schindler was still a struggling artist trying to support his wife, Anna.

Watching her father paint, Alma was stirred to revere both art and the artist, acquiring “an intuitive sense of the process and struggle of artistic creation” on the one hand, and nurturing fantasies of patronage on the other. “I dreamed of wealth merely in order to smooth the paths of creative personalities,” Alma wrote. “I wished for a great Italian garden filled by many white studios; I wished to invite many outstanding men there—to live for their art alone, without mundane worries—and never to show myself.” This passage comes from Der Schimmernde Weg, an unpublished manuscript written between 1944 and 1947. In And the Bridge Is Love, a florid, ghostwritten memoir published a few more decades into her mythmaking, when she was seventy-eight, Alma romanticizes even debt: her father was “always in debt, as befits a person of genius.” In contrast, the younger Alma’s diary is open, full of appealing simplicity, as in this memory of “the debts—and Papa, who, when things were at their worst, would simply roll over on his stomach and sleep round the clock.”

Schindler’s career picked up, however, and with recognition came students. One of them was Carl Moll, a young man who became Schindler’s assistant “and a fixture in the household.” Haste in her gentle way adds that “Moll’s devotion extended to Anna, and with utmost discretion they became lovers.” There seem to have been earlier instances of such discretion, a word that takes on a whole new meaning in Alma’s world. Alma’s sister Greta was born in 1880, and “the father was almost certainly [Schindler’s] painter colleague Julius Berger, who had shared the flat with Emil since before his marriage.”

Schindler died in 1892, and in 1895 Anna and Carl were married. Haste, like other biographers, attributes much in Alma’s later life to a need to rediscover the father she idolized. Alma did not find him in Moll, the cofounder of the Viennese Secession. But the other cofounder, Gustav Klimt, became her first romantic infatuation.

Her mother warned her that Klimt was having an affair with his sister-in-law. Alma was too good to be just his plaything, she said. But when he spilled a glass of schnapps on Alma’s white dress, Alma wrote in her diary,

he took my skirt on his knee, and himself washed the stain out of my petticoat. Both his legs and mine were hidden under the skirt, and inevitably they touched. Although I kept withdrawing—for I consider such behavior vulgar—I did so with reluctance and was overcome by such a strange, sweet sensation.

At one point, after a kiss he attempted to put his hand “on [her] heart” beneath her blouse. At another, Klimt suggested “complete physical union.” Alma’s response is wonderful, an indication of both her savvy and her innocence: she held a volume of Faust and quoted from it: “Do no favors without a ring on your finger.”

This was Alma Schindler’s world—feverish with art and music and genius and sex. This is Freud’s world before anyone thought to view themselves in Freudian terms—a time, judging from Alma’s account, of unbridled passion for culture and occasionally bridled physical passion. When Moll finally convinced Klimt to leave his step-daughter alone, Alma was devastated. She was such a committed flirt that when, in mourning for Klimt, she stopped flirting for a while, her mother consulted a doctor (an anatomist, the husband of a friend; one wonders what his diagnosis could possibly have been). But Alma, returning to the whirl of Vienna social life, was young enough to fall in love again six months later with Joseph Maria Olbrich, architect of the Secession building. She then embarked on a rather public flirtation with Erik Schmedes, the Vienna Opera’s star heldentenor, which ended when his wife made a scene at a party. Alma continued to feel the urge to “fall at someone’s feet and give myself to them, body and soul…. There’s too much zest in me.”

All the while, she was a dedicated student of piano and composition with Joseph Labor, a blind organist. As Haste points out, “It was not an option for her to study at a music academy because women were barred from entry.” But Alma’s next conquest was Alexander von Zemlinsky, a promising young conductor and composer who recognized her talent and offered to give her more advanced music lessons. When Zemlinsky arrived at her house, however, there was “a chorus of dismay.” Zemlinsky was ugly and, worse, he was poor. He was also Jewish. Alma moved in a culturally influential circle of assimilated Jews, but anti-Semitism was also very much a part of her world. “What a pity that [she] is so conspicuously Jewish,” she wrote of a friend she admired.

Haste refers to her “startling and tasteless anti-Semitic asides in her diaries,” which is a rather tasteless and startling way to put it, considering the depth of Alma’s lifelong prejudice, and the way it affected her personal and family relationships. Alma as a young woman was, perhaps, reflexively anti-Semitic, at least compared to the mature Alma’s insistent and conscious anti-Semitism. But her belief that Jews were inferior never wavered. As to her two Jewish husbands, Mahler and Werfel, she seemed to relish both her radical liaison with a decadent race as well as the opportunity to “lift” her Jewish husbands up, perhaps even to convert them. Though Mahler had already converted to Catholicism in order to become the conductor of the court opera, there were rumors that Alma had Werfel baptized against his wishes, or did it herself, when he died. Even with Zemlinsky, Alma made no secret that the bestowal of her beautiful and Christian self on a small, ugly Jew was a gracious act of magnanimity.

Zemlinsky quickly fell in love with Alma; two other men proposed to her “out of the blue”; and she became involved with Max Burckhard, director of the Burgtheater. Caught between girlish romantic longings and strong physical desire, both of which she wrote about with complete frankness in her diary, she dreamed “of giving [her] body” to the older man until the day he “came closer and closer, and finally he kissed me—and this was the worst of it—touched my mouth with his tongue…. Klimt’s kiss and Burckhard’s kiss—the former was heaven—today it was hell.”

As a young woman, Alma has both a familiar, contemporary appeal and one that feels culturally remote. Her diary entries burst with judgments of operas and symphonies, with courtship and copulation. Shocked when she realizes human sex is similar to that of dogs, she writes, “And that’s what Klimt called ‘physical union,’ this jigging about. It’s revolting, disgusting. Do humans pull the same faces as dogs. Ughhhhhhh.” Yet she cannot keep her eyes off the bulge in Burckhard’s trousers. When Zemlinsky proposes to her, she notes that “incidentally, my sexual organs are strangely disturbed.” There is that “zest,” her “desire—my cursed, churned up desire.”

When Burckhard heard she was thinking of marrying the Jewish Zemlinsky, he said, “For heaven’s sake, don’t marry Z. Don’t corrupt good race.” She didn’t marry him—but instead another potential race corruptor, Gustav Mahler. After Alma and Gustav attended the same dinner party in 1901, Zemlinsky, Burckhard, and her two other suitors were quickly cast aside. Within two months, Alma and Gustav were engaged.

Sounding a little like Alma herself, Haste writes that in the years before her marriage, Alma “was compelled to create music, driven by a spirit that flows from mysterious sources.” She went to the opera two or three times a week, to concerts at the Vienna Philharmonic every Sunday. A true Romantic, she preferred Wagner to Mozart:

Our century, our race, our outlook on life, our blood, our heart—everything is decadent! That’s why people prefer operas in which the music whips up every feeling and tears us apart like a whirlwind. We need madness—not dainty pastorales—to refresh the heart and mind.

She writes about music with the same hot-blooded ardor she uses to describe her feelings about men. “I want to do something really remarkable. Would like to compose a really good opera—something no woman has ever achieved,” she writes in her diary. “Oh Lord God, give me the strength to achieve what my heart longs for—an opera…. I pray to you that I may suffer no defeat in the battle against my weakness, against my femininity.”

But it was love, Haste says, that “was the core of her existence and the wellspring of the power that this restless and irrepressible woman would…exercise over those in her orbit.” Mahler seemed to bring together her needs for love, music, and genius, though she was more impressed with him as a conductor than a composer, describing his First Symphony as a “jumble of styles—and an ear-splitting, nerve-shattering din.”

Gustav wrote a letter to his fiancée that raises hackles today for its condescension toward a female artist. It raised Alma’s, too. After she ended a letter to him abruptly because she wanted to get back to her music, he replied, “If we are to be happy together, you must be my wife, not my colleague.” Her friends had flattered her, he said, by overstating her talent. She valued her “individuality,” but in truth, he wrote, she had not yet reached a state of “fully reasoned intrinsic being.” Everything in her was “nascent, latent and undeveloped.” What she could become, and must become in order to marry him, was “the highest and dearest part of my life, my faithful, valiant partner, who understands me and spurs me on to higher things…a heaven, in which I can always submerge, retrieve and constitute myself—all that is so indescribably noble and beautiful—so much and so great—in a word: MY WIFE.”

Not surprisingly, the twenty-two-year-old aspiring opera composer who saw herself as a tortured artist in training, who spent hours and hours practicing counterpoint, who had just weeks before turned down three other men, one of whom took her talent seriously, was horrified. She did what any conflicted young woman would do: “Half-crazed with grief, I got into my finery and drove to Siegfried—in tears!” But by the next morning, she had a different outlook: “What if I were to renounce my music out of love for him?… I must live entirely for him, to make him happy.” The same Romantic spiritual elevation she associated with being an artist was now assigned to sacrificing herself to an artist. His love would “elevate” and “purify” her; she was “imbued with the holiest feelings” for him.

The letters of Gustav and Alma have an almost frenzied urgency, but Gustav, selfish and demanding, was also candid and blunt. He was forty-four; he knew his own talent and ambition and what he required. A more sympathetic reading of his letter would be as a warning to his young fiancée, offering a chance for her to escape:

If you were to abandon your music in order to take possession of mine, and also to be mine: would this signify the end of life as you know it, and if you did so, would you feel you were renouncing a higher existence? Before we can think of forging a bond for life, we must agree on this question.

Alma accepted the terms, committing herself to propping up his creative genius, entering a marriage governed by the mandates of Gustav’s ruthless schedule. When he worked as a conductor during the winter, Alma would prepare his soup as he walked up the four flights to their apartment, so that it would be placed on the table, hot, as he sat down. When he worked in his mountain composing hut in the summer, he could not be disturbed in any way. Alma was not allowed even to play the piano during the long, lonely days. Gustav followed a strenuous exercise program, and Alma, huffing and puffing, was required to accompany him on long, steep hikes through the mountains, even during pregnancy. When Alma was in agony during labor, Mahler tried to “distract” her by reading aloud—from Kant.

In her various memoirs, Mahler’s widow did not hesitate to bitterly bring up the difficulties of marriage to a genius, particularly the sacrifice of her music. But she did faithfully uphold that part of the marital bargain. It was in an entirely different area of matrimony that she strayed.

By 1910, Alma had given birth to two daughters, Maria and Anna. She lost Maria to scarlet fever and diphtheria when the child was only five. After this tragedy and years of accommodating her intense and often unwell husband, traveling across Europe and to New York City with him, Alma was worn out. Following the enviable fashion of her class and time, she went to a spa to recover. There, she met a young man named Walter Gropius, the architect who later established the Bauhaus.

Gropius, not yet famous, was recovering from a year of hard work setting up his first firm. He was younger than Alma, good looking, and, importantly for her, Aryan. They fell into a passionate affair that continued by letter and occasional assignation even after Alma returned to her mountain home, where Gustav was composing his Tenth Symphony. Preposterously, Gropius addressed one of his love letters not to Alma but to Gustav. Whether or not it was a mistake, as Gropius claimed, the rest of the summer saw Gustav sprawled, by day, weeping, on the floor of his composing hut; insisting, by night, that the door between his and Alma’s bedrooms be kept open so he could be sure she was breathing. Gustav even invited Gropius, who was spotted hiding like a troll beneath a bridge, to come to the house, then respectfully retreated so the lovers could decide what to do. It is a scene from an overwrought opera, but it was real and ravaging to all three of them.

Double Portrait of Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler; a painting by Oskar Kokoschka
Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ProLitteris, Zürich
Oskar Kokoschka: Double Portrait of Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler, 1912

Gustav’s suffering while finishing the Tenth Symphony is documented in the tortured notes scrawled on the score: “To live for you!… To die for you! Almschi!… Farewell my lyre!… Farewell!” The anguished Gustav feared he was going insane: “The devil is dancing with me,/Accursed madness, seize me!” He dedicated his Eighth Symphony to Alma, and he consulted Freud. On a long walk together, Freud later recounted, they spoke “of every possible thing.” Gustav said he was in love with, faithful to, but no longer excited by his wife. Freud wondered why Mahler had not married a woman named Marie, since his mother’s name was Marie and he was obviously fixated on his mother. Gustav revealed that Marie was Alma’s middle name and Freud, presumably, was gratified. Alma’s account of the therapeutic walk is a little different, the most important wisdom imparted by Freud being, according to her and her alone, a horrified reproach to Gustav: “How dared a man in your state ask a woman to be tied to him?”

Touched by her husband’s new devotion and convinced that he would die if she left him, Alma sent Gropius away. Gustav wrote her daily love poems, smothered her slippers in kisses, and listened again to her music, pronouncing it good and begging her to resume composing. Alma was undeniably talented, and her songs are admired today, but this episode points as much to her extraordinary power as a muse as to her gifts as an artist.

Her daughter Anna said that when Alma

just stopped in the doorway, you could immediately feel an electric charge…. She was an incredibly passionate woman…. And she really paid attention to everyone she spoke to. And encouraged them…. She was able to enchant people in a matter of seconds.

Albrecht Joseph, eventually Anna’s fifth husband, who was shocked by Alma’s dowdiness when he first met the legendary seductress in 1931, nevertheless noted that her “unique gift” was “a profound, uncanny understanding of what it was that [creative] men tried to achieve, an enthusiastic, orgiastic persuasion that they could do what they aimed at, and that she, Alma, fully understood what it was.” The intensity of her belief in art and genius had the effect of creating an almost violent sympathy. Gustav, like the other men she loved, did not think he could survive artistically without her.

Gustav died in 1911 of pneumonia after contracting heart disease, but Alma and Gropius did not marry until 1915. Alma had other affairs before their marriage, including with a biologist who hired her as an assistant in charge of observing the molting habits of the praying mantis and who would, publicly, sniff and stroke the seat after she got up from it, until Alma finally admonished his wife to “take more care of him.”

And then there was Kokoschka. Alma later described her three-year affair with Oskar Kokoschka as “one violent struggle of love. Never before had I experienced so much strain, so much hell and so much paradise.” Jealous and controlling, the artist stalked her, patrolling her street after he left her house to make sure no other man visited. She refused to marry him, so while she was in Paris he stole her documents and posted the banns in the Döbling parish hall. “Oskar Kokoschka could only make love to me with the most peculiar game playing,” she later wrote. “As I refused to hit him during our hours of love, he began conjuring up the most appalling images of murder” of his supposed rivals “while whispering murkily to himself.” One night when she sang Parsifal at the piano, he whispered “a new, eerie text” into her ear, which caused her to scream and cry, then to swallow a toxic dose of bromine. (Kokoschka called the doctor.)

And through it all, he painted her. When she had an abortion (she wrote that she was afraid of “what might grow in me”), Kokoschka took a blood-stained cotton pad from her and kept it with him, saying, “That is, and will always be, my only child.” He painted bloody, murdered children. He drew “Alma Mahler Spinning with Kokoschka’s Intestine.” He insisted that she cover her arms with long sleeves. Kokoschka painted Alma entwined with him in a boat on a stormy sea, he painted Alma rising to the heavens while he stood in hell surrounded by snakes. Anna watched him work and asked, “Can’t you paint anything else except Mommy?”

When war came, Alma’s reaction was, as even the temperate Haste must admit, “an astonishing flourish of self-aggrandizement.” “I sometimes imagine,” Alma wrote, “that I was the one who ignited this whole world conflagration in order to experience some kind of development or enrichment—even if it be only death.” By now, she wanted to purify herself of the “evil fascination” of Kokoschka. She taunted him until he joined the cavalry, then broke off their relationship in unkind letters. In despair, Kokoschka insisted on being sent to the front, where he was wounded so badly he was reported dead in the Viennese papers. Though she later defiantly published a facsimile of Mahler’s manuscript of his Tenth Symphony, revealing (for a good price) his intimate, despairing notes, she was less keen on allowing her own letters to reach the public. After rushing to Kokoschka’s studio with her set of keys, she removed and burned her notes to him.

Though Kokoschka had not in fact died, her interest in him had. She was back to writing letters to Gropius. When she saw him while he was on leave, Haste writes, “their passion was rekindled,” and they got married. Kokoschka dealt with this rejection by commissioning a life-sized Alma doll, with instructions to “please make it possible that my sense of touch will be able to take pleasure in those parts where the layers of fat and muscle suddenly give way to a sinuous covering of skin.” The doll, covered in fluffy swan skin, suffered an ignominious end, beheaded and bedraggled in a courtyard the morning after Kokoschka threw a raucous farewell party for it.

Alma spent the rest of the war in Vienna fending off suitors, but she was, she wrote, though “desired by so many creatures…. STILL SO ALONEALONE.” While Gropius fought bravely at the front, she sent him letters complaining that he did not write frequently enough. She wrote to him of her longing for his “sacred appendage” and described oral sex in florid but surprisingly explicit language, a kind of late-Romantic sexting. She charted her feelings for Gropius and her other suitors like a hypochondriac taking her temperature. Does she love him? Him? These measurements of sentiment seem to have been part of a search for authenticity by this grandly idealistic yet emotionally erratic woman. She was keeping tabs on her feelings not to make sure that she was still loyal to her lovers, but to make sure that she was still loyal to herself—that she was not missing out on something, or someone, greater.

Gropius’s absence at the front took its toll. Enter Franz Werfel, a well-known and respected poet and playwright: “Werfel is a stocky, bow-legged somewhat fat Jew with sensuous, bulging lips and slit, watery eyes! But he wins you over.” He won her over completely at a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. They exchanged glances, then left “discreetly” at the intermission. Gropius, meanwhile, lay in a field hospital, having been buried for several days under a building’s rubble after a grenade killed every other soldier there.

The death of five-year-old Maria Mahler was not the last tragedy of motherhood for Alma. When Alma realized she was pregnant again, she was unsure if the father was Gropius or Werfel. She gave birth to a boy two months prematurely, following a night of rough sex with Werfel that she believed had induced labor. The child, who died after a few months, looked just like Werfel. Through his grief, Gropius behaved with great dignity toward Werfel, much as Mahler had behaved toward him years before. Over the next few years there was a divorce, a bitter fight over custody of their daughter, Manon, which Alma won—and, though of little interest to Alma, the birth of the Bauhaus.

Alma adored Manon, in whom, she wrote to Gropius, “all our good Aryan characteristics were merged,” but the girl died of polio at eighteen. Alma found Anna, her only surviving child, “alien” and “cool—superior and Jewish,” and often fought with her. “The leader of my opponents is always Anna,” she wrote after one political disagreement. “It is such a sorrow for me to have given birth to a 150% Jew.” Toward the end of Alma’s life, she and Anna reconciled. “She was a big animal,” Anna told one interviewer. “And sometimes she was magnificent, and sometimes she was abominable.”

Though the Werfel chapter of Alma’s life began in World War I, its most famous episode came during World War II. Alma was known to say, even after the war, when all the atrocities were undeniable, that she rather approved of Hitler. Her anti-Semitism had grown more pronounced during the unrest of the 1920s. “The mob unleashed,” she wrote in her diary in 1927. “THE EVIL SEED OF JUDAISM BLOSSOMS.” But she still surrounded herself with her artistic, Jewish circle as well as Vienna’s high society. Up until the last possible moment, Alma conducted her salon, gave lavish parties, and continued her flirtations, including a heady love affair with a well-connected Catholic priest (though she was scandalized when she heard after the war that he had left the priesthood to live with a woman).

It was not until the morning of Germany’s takeover of Austria in 1938 that she fled Vienna, and not until 1940 that she and Werfel admitted they had to leave Europe. Their escape, with Heinrich Mann and his wife and nephew, aided by the heroic American Varian Fry, was dramatic and dangerous. Sixty-one-year-old Alma encouraged the younger Werfel across the Pyrenees while lugging a suitcase loaded with jewels and the original score of Bruckner’s Third. Throughout the six-month ordeal of escape, Haste dryly notes, Alma “had shown remarkable calm, stoicism and resourcefulness—and an almost complete absence of debilitating introspection.”

The Vienna of Alma’s youth was gone forever, but she reestablished her salon in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, entertaining the émigré artistic elite, feuding and flirting with them, drinking heavily and enraging Werfel with anti-Semitic comments: the Allies were “weaklings and degenerate,” Hitler and the Germans “supermen”; the tales of concentration camps were “fabrications put out by refugees.” She rid herself of Werfel’s name when he died and went back to being Alma Mahler. In New York, where she moved in 1951, she attended Leonard Bernstein’s rehearsals of her first husband’s symphonies. She returned to Vienna only once, to settle some financial matters, and there is footage of her as a blousy old woman getting off the boat. Albrecht Joseph describes her at this time as “simply a bag of potatoes veiled in flowing robes,” though still “imposing, regal, radiating authority.”

Alma Mahler died in 1964, but her hold on the men she loved is as intriguing as ever. “Alma was deeply romantic,” Haste writes on the first page of the book. “She needed to be loved fiercely and also to feel love with a passion that fired her being. Only superior creative talents inspired her love.” That is the best explanation we are likely to get. As for her legend, that was formed by her own creative talent. Declining to compose songs anymore, she changed genres and began to compose instead a life. She was the force of artistic discipline and inspiration for Werfel. She was Kokoschka’s Bride of the Wind. She was Mahler’s “Almschi!,” the muse of his Tenth Symphony.

Haste sees Alma as “a modern woman who lived out of her time.” I think she was, on the contrary, a Romantic in a modern time, one who worshiped at the altar of genius, and found her own genius not in creating art but in attempting to embody it. A frustrated maestro who found satisfaction in being an inspiration for some of the century’s greatest cultural figures, Alma’s real creation was her own legend, an operatic event of both squalor and grandeur. As with any work of art, you do not look for accurate, factual history there. You watch and listen and admire. Surely that is all Alma ever really wanted.